The curse in the novel

So, let’s talk about cursing in fiction. Do you mind it?  Do you think an agent would be put off by strong language? Does it put you off?

I didn’t consider these questions when I wrote my book In Absentia. While writing, my main character, Adam, ended up with somewhat of a potty mouth. I didn’t intend for this to happen, it’s just the way it went. I didn’t notice it until my husband test read the book and pointed out how much Adam curses.

I did go back to check it out and when I realized that the curse word ticker was indeed on the high side I changed some of the language. I ended up substituting some of the stronger words with something more benign and cut some completely. The question I ran into was  how much to remove to tone it down without losing some of the essence of the character.

See, in the book Adam is going through a rough time. He’s convinced he caused the sudden disappearance of his brother Levi; he’s fired from his job, and has pushed his family and friends away. He can’t even get to sleep without popping a pill. Adam is not a happy guy.  I found his use of the occasional strong cuss word was reflective of how he felt. Gradually, as the books moves forward and Adam’s life begins to change for the positive, his language changes also.

I think if someone were to read the book in its entirety that would be clear, but the thing is, most agents often read only the sample pages, or chapters before decided if it’s a yes or a no. So will they see that the language is part of the characters’ state of mind? And once the novel is, hopefully, published, will the readers be put off if they run across an f-word here or there?

Now, don’t get me wrong, the novel is not in any danger of needing a parental guidance sticker. None of the other characters curse. The truth is, I could take out the cursing, I could have him express himself differently, but I really like the salty language he uses.

One of the things I love most about writing is dialogue; I like giving each character a distinct way of speaking, expressions that are unique to them.  It’s what makes the characters come alive to me. In a way, Adam’s colorful way of speaking makes him who he is, flawed, backed into a corner, desperate. It’s just part of the character. I am leaving it as it is for now and hope that agents and readers will see it the same way.